Remembering James Watt


IT’S an assuming little building.It doesn’t have a roof – and has become a playground for local children.

But it’s where history was made.

This is the former workshop of the inventor James Watt. It’s part of an amazing story – and a discovery – that quite literally changed the world.

The cottage, in the shadow of the imposing Kinneil House, was built in 1769.

The industrialist Dr John Roebuck – a founder of the famous Carron Iron Works in Falkirk – was living in the great mansion house at the time, and leasing local pits from the Duke of Hamilton.

The problem was: the pits were flooding. Early steam engines just weren’t up to the job of pumping out water.  And so Dr Roebuck called on the young Mr Watt to help build a better steam engine.

Historical records show that Dr Roebuck gave Watt £1000, in return for a two-thirds share in his work.

Watt and Roebuck decided that Kinneil – away from prying eyes in Bo’ness – was a good place to test out prototypes. The nearby Gil Burn provided a plentiful supply of water. And so the partnership was formed.

The Scots industralist Andrew Carnegie, in his book on Watt, takes up the story.

“As the engine neared completion, Watt’s anxiety ‘for his approaching doom’, kept him from sleep, his fears being equal to his hopes,” said Carnegie.

“He was especially sensitive and discouraged by unforeseen expenditure, while his sanguine partner, Roebuck, on the contrary, continued hopeful and energetic, and often rallied his pessimistic partner on his propensity to look upon the dark side.

“He was one of those who adhered to the axiom, ‘Never bid the devil good morning till you meet him’.”

Watt is said to have worked at Kinneil for two spells in 1769 and1770. The engine trials were not entirely successful, because the parts supplied by the Carron Company were not made to the precision required.

Watt was also called away to other projects – and the development of the steam engine could have been forgotten about– but for it not for a quirk of fate that led to the downfall of Dr. Roebuck and the success of James Watt.

The generous Doctor – hit by money worries – became bankrupt in 1773 and was forced to pass on his interests in the steam engine patent to the industrialist Matthew Boulton of Birmingham.

And so the improved steam engine was perfected away from Bo’ness – and Watt and Boulton became very rich indeed.

The Bo’ness historian TJ Salmon noted: “Dr Roebuck … had fought against the water (flooding the mines) until he could fight no more, and was at last delivered into the hands of his creditors, a ruined man.

“His share in Watt’s invention was then transferred to Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham. This was the turning-point for Watt. Birmingham was an excellent trade centre, and within it were to be found experienced mechanics.

“The firm of Boulton, Watt & Co. was formed in 1774, and Watt’s success was thenceforward ensured.

“Although Roebuck had to give in, there is no doubt that Watt was so much indebted to him at the beginning that, without his aid and encouragement, he would never have gone on.”

How Watt's workshop at Kinneil looked 100 years ago

Dr. Roebuck’s wife once recalled: “Jamie (Watt) is a queer lad, and without the doctor his invention would have been lost, but Dr. Roebuck won’t let it perish.”

James Watt – born in January 1736 (275 years ago) – died in 1819, aged 83.

The New Scientist magazine said the improvements to the steam engine “converted it from a prime mover of marginal efficiency into the mechanical workhorse of the Industrial Revolution”.

That’s quite a claim to fame.

Dr Roebuck died in 1794, aged 76. You can visit his graveyard in Carriden Churchyard. The inscription, in Latin, says “Underneath this tombstone lies no ordinary man.”

TJ Salmon reveals: “From his generous and kindly treatment of James Watt, and his keen desired to promote the interests of the inhabitants of Bo’ness, we readily conclude that . . . he was far above the average man.”

When you pass that roofless cottage, built by Dr Roebuck for James Watt, remember their legacy – and how they worked on something that quite literally changed the world.

ADRIAN MAHONEY is the convener of leisure, tourism and community at Falkirk Council and a trustee of The Friends of Kinneil.

Find out more

** Bank boss visits Kinneil
** New James Watt banknote launched
** Watt’s it all about – more about James Watt
** James Watt on Wikipedia
** James Watt audio slideshow on BBC Radio
** James Watt at the Science Museum